Hi everyone! Today we have Jeannie Lin guesting with us! She’s got a pretty awesome post, so there’s nothing more I really need to say. Enjoy!
Tang Dynasty Courtesans – High Class Prostitutes?
Since I won this opportunity to guest after a #stalkersong contest, I thought it might be fun to tie the blog in with that theme, but alas—stalker romance, not so sexy!
So instead I tried to think of an 80s song title that would be appropriate. I had already titled one of the blogs “She’s Got the Look” about Tang Dynasty clothing, but “Turning Japanese” hardly fit since we’re in China. Maybe David Bowie’s “China Girl”? Anyway, I digress.
Big ol’ thanks to Limecello for hosting cool contests that let me reminisce about my 80’s addiction as well as giving me a place to post geeky posts about courtesans.
The heroine of The Dragon and the Pearl is a courtesan named Suyin who was selected into the imperial harem as one of the Emperor’s concubines. But what did it mean to be a courtesan in Tang Dynasty China? How could a woman who entertained other men be allowed into the Emperor’s harem? Was Suyin essentially a high-class prostitute?
I think the last question is the juicy one that makes us want to know more about this lifestyle. Courtesans have played an important role in very high powered positions throughout history in both Western and Eastern cultures. In both cases, it’s recognized that their influence and allure extended beyond sex. Courtesans were often highly educated and able to carry on sophisticated conversations with men of power. They were companions and mistresses, not merely sex providers.
Yet there are slight nuances in Chinese culture that put the courtesan in a very fascinating position. In many ways, the Tang Dynasty courtesan held a unique place among the elite of society and she was both more independent and at the same time more beholden than her Western counterparts.
First of all, there were common prostitutes and whores in the Tang Dynasty. There were women who serviced the army or worked in brothels where the primary commodity was sex. Not much was written about their lives so it is unclear whether they were condemned or considered base and immoral. Much of the writing of the Tang Dynasty focused on the elite classes, but it can be assumed in terms of the status of women, prostitutes likely occupied the lowest rung among slaves and servants.
The courtesans were something entirely different. It was a registered profession and there are records of daughters of high-ranking nobleman registering to become courtesans. Similar to geisha in Japan, Tang Dynasty courtesans usually resided in specific entertainment districts and belonged to specific houses which were headed by den mothers or madams, for lack of a better word. These houses were much more than common brothels. Courtesans were often trained from an early age in music, dance, and poetry in these establishments. In return for the room, board, and upbringing, the courtesans would incur an immense amount of debt to their den mothers so the relationship became akin to slavery or common prostitution in the sense that they were expected to earn money for their entertainment houses to pay off this debt and the amount they owed would often ensure that they were bonded for life. On the other hand, courtesans had the right to petition the public courts if they were treated unfairly and could pay off their debt and be free to leave without repercussions.
Courtesans played an essential and often honored roll among high-powered Tang Dynasty society. Courtesans were considered artists. Based on writings and poems about elite courtesans, it seemed that there was more emphasis on their talent and skill as musicians, dancers, and poets than on their physical beauty. Courtesans also played an important role as hostesses and mediators for important meetings between noblemen, officials, and businessmen. Their connections with these influential men as well as with scholars and poets gave them an elevated status in Tang society.
But before the picture gets too rosy—we shouldn’t forget that they were still servants. Courtesans negotiated a very complicated landscape where they had influence outside of domestic circles; an uncommon place for women. They were praised and looked upon with admiration, yet they were still dependent on patrons for their livelihood.
Let’s talk about sex then, the ever lingering question. Were courtesans masters in the sensual and sexual arts? It’s already been mentioned that their sexual role was secondary to their social function. At the same time, they had more sexual freedom and were they to take a lover, the purpose would be definitely be for pleasure rather than duty or procreation, which would certainly add a different spice to things. A courtesan was probably more knowledgeable and experienced than a blushing bride whose first and only experience was with her husband, however it was unlikely that she had numerous bed partners in her career.
A courtesan was a master of courtship rather than sex. It was common and even expected for an elite courtesan to be pursued and courted by many men, but it would be disastrous to her reputation if she were to take more than a few select patrons to bed. A high-ranking courtesan could choose her own lovers where a less privileged one would likely have her lovers chosen for her by her den mother. As for the enamored scholars and noblemen who vied for a courtesan’s attention, there was no shame or dishonor in being held off. Essentially, they were paying for the companionship and the chase, not the conquest. It would be unthinkable for a man to attend a social gathering and immediately expect sex from his hostess.
There were likely two times when an elite courtesan would truly “sell herself”. If she’d entered the life from a very young age, the first time she took a lover would garner a significant payment though there were no records of the elaborate mizuage “virginity auctions” depicted in geisha culture. If she remained in the profession, she was likely hoping to attract a single wealthy and powerful patron to buy out her debt.
Unlike in Western culture, being a professional courtesan didn’t carry a taint of impurity with it. A courtesan could marry without repercussions after she left the profession. This was likely due to the fact that a woman’s status was defined by her husband rather than by her own merit—before we go assuming that the Tang Dynasty was a wholly progressive and liberated time for women. Also the prevailing religions at the time, Buddhism and Taoism, didn’t place any special value upon virginity, so there was no sense of sin around a courtesan who had taken lovers before she was married. At the same time, a woman who was not a courtesan was certainly not free to take on lovers before marrying and most brides were expected to be untouched on their wedding nights.
In the backstory of The Dragon and the Pearl, Ling Suyin is trained in one of these pleasure houses and groomed to be an elite courtesan. In a great triumph, she manages to attract the eye of imperial official who is selecting for the Emperor’s harem. She rises in rank and influence, and becomes his primary or “precious consort”, but upon his death she leaves the court to live in exile.
And that’s when her story really begins.
Comment to win a copy of The Dragon and the Pearl (print or ebook, your choice) and get a glimpse into the world of the Tang Dynasty.
The Dragon and the Pearl is available September 20 from Harlequin Historical and is set in the Tang Dynasty, during a time of court intrigue and a great power struggle between opposing warlords. It’s a follow-up to my 2010 release, Butterfly Swords. A linked short story, The Lady’s Scandalous Night, is available as an ebook release now from Harlequin Historical Undone.
You can visit me at my website: http://www.jeannielin.com or check out The Dragon and the Pearl Launch Celebration for a chance to receive books and other Tang Dynasty themed goodies. I’m also on Twitter as @JeannieLin.
And… okay I couldn’t resist. A Picture of Tang Dynasty courtesans! Kinda! (Well likely, anyway you don’t need or want a “history” lesson from me.)